Cameron in chains
When Conservative leaders come to address the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, they are required to stand outside Committee Room 14 of the House of Commons until the rest of the agenda is completed. Only then are they summoned in. David Cameron likens the experience to ‘waiting outside the headmaster’s study’. But it is worse than that — as he waits, half a dozen journalists watch his every move. If he perspires, it’s on Twitter.
Cameron has done his utmost to get out of this ordeal. When he was leader of the opposition, he used to call his own meetings of the parliamentary party, which he could attend from the start. As soon as he became PM, he tried effectively to abolish the 1922 Committee; but his efforts were defeated. So he has no choice but to cool his heels in the corridor. Last December, he became distinctly bolshie because he had to sit outside rereading his speech for more than a quarter of an hour as the hacks gawped at him.
When Cameron turned up outside Committee Room 14 last Wednesday, however, he was charm itself. He joshed happily about how he was having to look after the kids on his own because Samantha was away. He exuded amiability and confidence from every pore.
And well he might. A year into the job, Cameron is more powerful than he has ever been. He has, in the words of one ally, ‘turned out to be a far better prime minister than leader of the opposition’. He is also, for the first time, a clear winner on the national stage, having helped the No campaign to a two-toone victory in the electoral reform referendum.
Within his party, his standing has recovered from his failure to win the general election outright. In the latest elections, the Conservative party vote increased from both 2007, the last time these seats were contested, and the general election: an achievement that few would have dared to predict. It suggests that Cameron is on course to secure that elusive overall majority.
But when dealing with his Cabinet, Cameron remains a weak prime minister. As Chris Huhne and Liam Fox have both demonstrated this week, he cannot hire and fire at will.
Take the Huhne affair. When a secretary of state is accused of a crime in the press, it is usual for the Prime Minister to get involved immediately. But Cameron has not discussed
the allegations against his Energy Secretary and won’t even say that he believes Huhne’s denials.
Cameron still has the right to sack any member of his Cabinet. But evidently he has decided that, in this time of coalition tensions, it would not be prudent to dismiss a Liberal Democrat. He has had to outsource judgment on the matter to his deputy, Nick Clegg. It was Clegg who, after the National Security Council meeting on Monday, sat down with the Energy Secretary and asked him about the allegations. Cameron’s role was restricted to asking Clegg to persuade Huhne to make a public statement.
Few Tories would shed tears if Huhne did have to resign. They all rather revelled in his halting public remarks on Monday. They find
If Huhne goes, Clegg chooses his replacement. It could be someone who causes even more trouble him arrogant and they are still seething about his confrontation with Cameron and George Osborne over the No campaign. Not a single Tory Cabinet minister turned out to support Huhne in the Commons chamber when he made a statement on Tuesday. By contrast, when the report into David Laws’s expenses was published the week before, Michael Gove was in the chamber, immediately paid tribute to him and remained on the front bench for his apology to the House.
One thing stops the Tories from taking too much pleasure in Huhne’s predicament: they don’t choose who will replace him. The pro-
tocols of the coalition dictate that, if Huhne goes, Clegg will decide on his successor. He could choose an energy secretary who would cause even more bother. As one Tory who has to deal with Huhne’s department regularly puts it, ‘If it’s someone sensible like Jeremy Browne it is all right. But if it is not, we could be in trouble.’ What if it’s a green zealot who objects to nuclear power and demands even more environmental regulation and taxation? The economy is delicate enough as it is. If you want to disconcert a Cameroon, just say that you have heard that Clegg is preparing to bring Simon Hughes, the Lib Dems’ campaigning deputy leader, into the coalition tent. They actually shiver.
But it is not only Liberal Democrats that Cameron struggles to control. Downing Street is furious that another letter from Liam Fox to the Prime Minister has leaked out, this time questioning the government’s unpopular aid policy. ‘Written to be leaked just like the last one,’ spits a No. 10 source. (The last one, you may recall, warned of the ‘grave consequences’ of proposed defence cuts, and surfaced at a sensitive moment during the spending review.) There’s little Cameron can do, however. He can hardly sack Fox over a leak when he has left Huhne in post and accepted Vince Cable describing him as ‘very unwise’ for making a robust speech about immigration.
Fox is in a particularly strong position because he comes from the right of the Conservative party. Cameron cannot be seen to be more concerned about the left tent pole of his coalition than the right one.
For all his frustrations, however, Cameron could yet derive an important advantage from having his hands so visibly tied. At the next election, it could allow him to run as both an incumbent and a change candidate. That is what Alex Salmond managed to do in Scotland, after four years as the head of an SNP minority administration, and Conservative electoral strategists are much taken with the tactic. They view Salmond’s campaign, with its heavy emphasis on the personality of the leader, as a model for the one they want to fight in 2015. One Cabinet minister has even taken to calling the PM ‘the English Alex Salmond’.
But even if he does win outright, he’ll still have to wait outside Committee Room 14.
‘I want a super-injunction on the fact that no one will have an affair with me.’
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the spectator | 21 May 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk